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Raven Crime Reads

Criminally good reads…

Blog Tour- Doug Johnstone- The Jump

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Welcome to the next stop on the Doug Johnstone blog tour, coinciding with the release of his latest book The Jump. Raven is quite the fan of Mr J.  and have previously had the pleasure of reviewing both Gone Again and The Dead Beat , so what did The Jump hold in store…

The Jump, immediately draws us into the world of Ellie, a middle-aged woman struggling to come to terms with the seemingly inexplicable suicide of her teenage son, Logan, and the fractured relationship this has caused within her marriage to Ben. Living in the shadow of the Forth Bridge, where Logan ended his life, and succeeding in talking down another suicidal teenager, Sam, Ellie finds herself with a second chance in helping Sam, and gaining some kind of redemption from the sadness that defines her life. However, in becoming so closely involved with him, and his younger sister, Libby, Ellie becomes enmeshed in a family that is filled with secrets, far darker and more dangerous than she can possibly imagine…

When people decry genre fiction as somehow not being as worthy or the compare of ‘literary fiction’,  I have no hesitation in drawing their attention to books such as this. The Jump possesses an emotional intensity and sensitivity that is rarely encountered in any genre, harnessing emotional, and by their very nature, contentious issues that many writers in the ‘literary’ field would struggle to address in such an affecting way as Johnstone achieves. Obviously, the book is very much centred on the theme of suicide, both the causes of, and the aftermath for,  those left behind by this devastating act, and in the character of Ellie, Johnstone personifies all the linked emotions, doubts and blame that those left behind have to process. I loved the marked difference that Ellie and her husband exhibit in their reactions to the loss of their son, and the way that they too are faced with a leap of faith to restore their relationship to what it once was. Also with the interaction between Ellie and troubled teenager Sam, Johnstone blurs the lines between Ellie’s response to him as a mother, and a strange sense of sensuality, not sexuality, that seems to permeate their relationship. As we discover more about Sam, and his family (no spoilers from me), Ellie seems to undergo a marked change, and discovers a real inner core of strength that has been suppressed by her grief, and her journey back to her former resilience is moving throughout. With so much of the weight of the plot and the emotional issues therein on her shoulders, there was always a chance that Johnstone may have strayed down the route of mawkish sentimentality. He doesn’t, and must be applauded for his very sensitive, and most importantly, utterly real characterisation that Ellie embodies. As the plot unfolds into a very dark tale indeed, this sense of brutal reality persists, and is both shocking and redemptive in equal measure.

Another facet of the book that I enjoyed greatly was the absolute attention to sense of place, that Johnstone consistently shows in the book. With the incredibly visual depiction of this small riverside community, dwarfed by the architectural scale of the bridge itself, and the threatening power of this mass of water, Johnstone also draws a contrast of the smallness of our lives in the face of nature. His description of the life of the river and its environs, and man’s attempts to harness it, raises some interesting questions on our place within the natural world, but equally how the power of nature can provide succour in times of emotional uncertainty. I thought the description of Ellie’s wild swimming, where she sheds her land-bound skin, almost like a folkloric Selkie, to calm her restless spirit, was incredibly effective, and how this physical and, at times, perilous act brought her a closer connection with her son. It was beautifully done, and further ingrained in the reader’s sensibility the inescapable link that the water holds for Ellie in all spheres of her life.

You know how you sometimes encounter a book that just swirls around your consciousness in the wake of its reading, and pops back into your head at odd moments- well, this is most definitely one of those. The Jump is one of the most emotive and intense books it’s been my pleasure to read, and despite the weighty issues it explores, and the inherent sadness within its pages, ultimately one of the most satisfying. A brave, yet sometimes difficult, subject wonderfully handled. Prepare to be moved.

Jax Miller- Freedom’s Child

CJZBS7gVAAAmIfbCall me what you will: a murderer, a cop killer, a fugitive, a drunk…

There’s a lot people don’t know about Freedom Oliver. They know she works at the local bar. They know she likes a drink or two. What they don’t know is that Freedom is not her real name. That she has spent the last eighteen years living under Witness Protection, after being arrested for her husband’s murder. They don’t know that she put her two children up for adoption, a decision that haunts her every day. Then Freedom’s daughter goes missing, and everything changes. Determined to find her, Freedom slips her handlers and heads to Kentucky where her kids were raised. No longer protected by the government, she is tracked by her husband’s sadistic family, who are thirsty for revenge. But as she gets closer to the truth, Freedom faces an even more dangerous threat. She just doesn’t know it yet…

Every so often a crime thriller debut comes along with an understated but powerful writing style that fair knocks you off your feet. Freedom’s Child is one such book, and in deference to the general acclaim this book is receiving across the book world, I can only agree with the general trend of overwhelmingly positive reviews it is deservedly attracting…

Focusing on the damaged, and utterly compelling character of Freedom Oliver, many reviewers have been quick to draw comparisons with Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. However, I firmly believe that Freedom, although shaped and emotionally damaged by past events in her life, represents an altogether more powerful credibility as a strong female character. Her whole outwardly hard drinking, feisty and kick ass demeanour, belies her very real emotional frailty, not assuaged by any evidence of intellectual or technological genius as evinced by Salander. Instead, she is completely driven by the overwhelming maternal instinct, caused by the separation of herself from her children, and the sheer determination to atone for, and rescue them from, the repercussions of the violence her actions have given rise to. Throughout the book Miller carefully maintains these two contrasting aspects of her character, where Freedom attempts to shut down emotional engagement and tolerance of others, seemingly on the road to self-destruction, but with the reader always being aware of the fire that burns deep within her driven by her lost role as a mother and the emotional focus this gives her. Her un-mailed letters to her two lost children are particularly heart-wrenching. The characterisation that Miller ascribes to her is as disturbing as it is poignant, and equally how every other character’s actions is so influenced by, or attuned to our mercurial heroine. Her interplay with, and reactions to, those that would help or hinder her keep her in sharp focus throughout, and in her Miller has created a multi-faceted and completely mesmerising central character.

By weaving in the issue of religious fundamentalism, and the focus of the destructive patriarchy of cult leaders, alongside some pretty abhorrent figures from Freedom’s ill-judged marriage, Miller has plenty of ammunition to spray on the evil deeds of men. Freedom’s past experiences, and the current collision course she finds herself on, have been shaped comprehensively by the thoughts, opinions and fists of some pretty despicable men. As disturbed as I was by the truly horrific male specimens that Miller serves up to us, I appreciated her unflinching characterisation of them, as difficult as it was to read at times. However, to balance the score, Miller does ascribe a modicum of decency to both Freedom’s son, Mason, her brother-in-law Peter, and Freedom’s would-be protector, police officer James Mattley, and these three characters will resonate strongly with most readers, as both emotive and engaging characters.

Equally, Miller has a laconic, lean and incredibly rhythmical cadence to the writing style, that is on a par with some of the best writers in contemporary American fiction- Daniel Woodrell, Denis Johnson, and Willy Vlautin spring to mind. The use of a certain amount of rhythmical repetition carries the reader along, and really embeds the voice of Freedom in the reader’s consciousness. Likewise, the visual depiction of something as rough and ready as a biker bar, is counterbalanced by some truly beautiful descriptions of the sprawling landscapes and highways that Freedom travels on her mercy mission, retaining the sense of authenticity that Miller demonstrates throughout her writing.

This book has haunted me since reading it, and as a reader and a bookseller, it is always something special to be so affected by, and witness to, a powerful new voice in fiction. Quite possibly will be my book of the year. Terrific.

 

Blog Tour-Torquil MacLeod- Murder In Malmo- Extract

MinM blog tour picWelcome to day four of the Torquil MacLeod- Murder In Malmo blog tour, where it’s my pleasure to bring you a sneaky peek at the second in this compelling Scandinavian inspired series. I reviewed the first in the series Meet Me In Malmo which introduced us to Swedish detective, Anita Sundström, earlier this year, so pleased to see that she has returned. There are also an additional two books Missing In Malmo and  Midnight In Malmo, so plenty for Scandinavian crime fiction fans to enjoy! So without further ado here is the extract…

PROLOGUE

51KhOVRibVL__SX310_BO1,204,203,200_It was a fine, clear, tranquil evening and there was nothing to hamper his line of fire.  He could see the two women chatting animatedly.  They waved their arms extravagantly as they spoke, to add emphasis to whatever they were discussing.  Their actions were caught in the lights of the entrance to the drab block of apartments.  The whole area was a sea of faceless, formless concrete.  Unimaginative buildings filled with unwanted people. 

Rosengård wasn’t a part of Malmö that he had been to before.  It had taken him time to get his bearings.  To get a feel for the urban terrain; his new war zone.  And he was in enemy territory.   These people weren’t his people.  They were invaders from foreign lands.  Intruders, like these two women in front of the apartment block who were now the centre of his attention.

            He moved further behind the bush.  No one else was around.  He could hear snatches of music and voices coming from televisions because windows were open due to the warmth.  He smelt the faint whiff of cigarette smoke from somewhere nearby; probably someone on a balcony.  But he wasn’t worried about being spotted.  He could deal with any situation.  And he had his favoured large-calibre handgun, which gave him an automatic advantage.

            Now the women seemed to have come to the end of their conversation.  They looked as though they were about to part.  He raised his gun and lined up his targets.  Each of the women was wearing a brightly coloured hijab.  Somehow it made it easier that he couldn’t see their faces clearly.  He would need to shoot quickly as he wanted to hit them both.  His finger hovered gently over the trigger.  He steadied himself. There was now a gap between the women.  He tensed.

            Two shots.  The women silently slumped to the ground.  There was a shout from a nearby window, but he didn’t hear it. He was gone.

CHAPTER 1

The mirror caught Tommy Ekman’s self-satisfied smile.  The brilliant white teeth between open lips were the most obvious sign, but it was the sparkle in the cool blue eyes that really reflected the inner delight.  Despite it being seven in the morning, his eyes weren’t fogged up with sleep.  He had been lying awake for the last half hour.  He had been thinking about her.  Not his wife Kristina, who was staying over at her father’s country place near Illstorp, but Elin.

He took out his toothbrush and squeezed on some toothpaste.  Must keep those teeth looking dazzling.  The smile again.  Yes, he had made love to Elin at last.  Over his office desk.  He had been trying to engineer the opportunity ever since he had employed her as an account executive six months before.  She had rebuffed his advances for a while.  ‘We’re both married,’ had been her defence strategy.  He started to brush his teeth vigorously without ever losing sight of himself in the mirror.  But last night he had breached her fortifications.  His advertising agency had won that important pitch.  Elin had led the successful team.  They had broken out the champagne in his office.  Others had slipped away over the next hour or so until they were the only ones left.  Elin was a little high on her first big success with the agency.  From then on, it hadn’t been that difficult to get into her knickers.  Even he had been surprised at how easily she had succumbed.  He would give her the rise he had pantingly promised her shortly before he had manoeuvred her onto his desk – but only as long as she was happy to provide “extracurricular” services to the boss.

Tommy rinsed out his mouth.  He would still have to be careful with Kristina.  He wouldn’t want her to find out.  Her money was still useful – and her father’s business contacts.  He didn’t want to rock the domestic boat, though he found it harder to make love to Kristina these days, despite the fact she was still an attractive woman.  Maybe it was familiarity that had led to boredom on his part, or perhaps because she hadn’t been as interested in the physical side of their relationship since the kids arrived.  But the business was doing well, despite all the economic doom-mongers.  Still, he didn’t want her to take him to the cleaners.

Kristina’s father had been useful with the “group”, too.  Given him a foot up.  Now he had cemented his place with his strategy ideas.  They had gone down very well.  One of the suggestions had been acted upon within a week.  And the film had been a real success.  He was confident that he would be running the show very soon.  Then the “group” would make people sit up. On this beautiful, sunny May morning, life couldn’t get any better.

He slipped off his pyjama bottoms and admired his naked figure in the mirror.  He was still finely toned, despite all the client business lunches.  And he still had stamina.  Just ask Elin.  Once aroused, she had been very accommodating.  He was still laughing to himself when he stepped into the spacious wet room cubicle, closed the door and flipped on the shower.  It sprang into life, and he tilted his head upward and enjoyed the hard spray of hot, refreshing water hitting his face.  It was invigorating.  As he soaped his body, his mind began to wander again.  Back to Elin.  It had been so exciting.  That triumphant moment of conquest.  He could feel the first stiffening in his groin.  It was only as he put the soap back in its cradle that he became aware of a strange tingling in his throat.  He looked down at the silver circular outflow cover on the floor beneath his feet.  The water was running out as usual, but something didn’t seem quite right.  His head began to swim and he started to feel giddy.  His eyes were misting over.

Tommy flapped at the shower tap and the water stopped flowing almost immediately, except for a few final drops.  He swayed in the cubicle, not sure whether he would be able to keep on his feet.  What the hell was happening to him?  With great difficulty, he managed to slide the cubicle doors apart.  In front of him the bathroom was a blurred vision of dancing pale green and blue tiles.  He stumbled out of the cubicle, still dripping wet.  He tried to steady himself against the wash-hand basin, but his grasping fingers missed the edge and he sank to his knees as he retched up some dribbled green saliva and the remnants of last night’s champagne.  Why was his skin so itchy?  Frantically, he ripped at his arms and chest with his nails.  With a huge effort, he half-staggered to his feet and fell forward towards the door of the bedroom.  He didn’t make it and he sprawled on the bathroom floor. He tried to call out for help; not that there was anybody in the apartment to hear him at that time in the morning. But all that came out of his mouth was a fresh burst of vomit.  The dizziness was sickening.  He couldn’t fight it any longer.  Why was this happening?  His throat, his skin, his eyes, his head were all on fire.  He lay in a heap on the floor.  He could feel himself slipping into a void of unconsciousness.  His limbs, totally independent of his fast-evaporating will, gave a last defiant jerk.

Rays of early morning sunshine speared through the frosted glass of the bathroom window like a prism and bathed the dead body of Tommy Ekman in a brilliant light show.  Below the bulging eyes, his mouth was wide open; frozen in the moment in the cry for help that never came out.  The sunlight made his teeth sparkle.

 

CHAPTER 2

Michaela Lindegren yawned.  She didn’t know why, because she had slept soundly all night.  Normally, when Jörgen was away on business she would fret the night away, even though she knew he would be fine.  Maybe it was insecurity.  Now that the children had flown the nest, she had the house to herself, and that never felt quite right.  During the day, she enjoyed the freedom.  At night it was different.  Jörgen was always considerate and phoned from wherever he was to make sure that she was all right.  She always locked up carefully, but perhaps it was the size of the house that made her nervous.  Lots of empty rooms.  That’s why when Jörgen wasn’t there,  she would have the radio on when she went to bed.  Noise was reassuring.  Often she went to sleep with it still playing and would wake up in a fright because she could hear voices. Come daylight, and all the fears would disappear, like the early-morning mist outside their seaside home.  It was going to be another lovely day.  And Jörgen would be back tonight.  His flight into Kastrup Airport was due in the late afternoon.

Michaela wandered into the kitchen and fixed herself a coffee.  Nice and strong.  The perfect lift for the day.  She missed having to make breakfast for the children.  She had enjoyed the routine of fussing over them and making sure they had everything they needed for school that day.  It gave her a role within the family.  She was the organizer.  Now there was very little to organize.  Meals for Jörgen.  Accompanying him to the theatre or one of his business functions.  She had become a trophy wife without the requisite glamour.  Home was her province.  The other wives in their circle were far more sophisticated.  They were up with the latest fashions, knew the names of the trendiest interior designers and chefs, and could drop into any conversation the expensively exotic locations where they had been on holiday, without the slightest hint of humility.  Jörgen could afford to take her to anywhere she wanted, but she was a home bird and he travelled so widely in his work that she was content to stay in Sweden.  So they usually went to the island of Öland, or even closer to home in Österlen, which wasn’t much more than an hour’s drive from Limhamn.

After another coffee and a light breakfast – she wanted to save herself for the special meal she was cooking to welcome Jörgen back – Michaela wandered down the corridor to the front door where she picked up the morning newspaper.  She would have a quick read of it before heading off to the shops.  She walked into the living room.  The curtains were drawn.  As she opened them, a weak sun was trying to penetrate the sea mist.  Soon it would burn it off and it would be a lovely day.  Then the wonderful, sleek lines of the Öresund Bridge, the link between Sweden and Denmark, would emerge.

It was as she turned from the window that she instantly knew something was wrong.  For a moment she couldn’t put her finger on it as she stared at the opposite wall.  She suddenly found herself gasping for air.  It couldn’t be.  She steadied herself against the table.  She looked again.  There was no denying it.  What was Jörgen going to say?  She was now feeling faint.  However hard she stared, it wasn’t going to bring it back.  It had definitely been there when she went to bed last night.

This morning it was gone.

 

71rTjnsEMGL__UX250_Torquil MacLeod was an advertising copywriter for 36 years. Born in Edinburgh, he now lives in Cumbria, with his wife, Susan. He came up with the idea for his Malmö detective, Inspector Anita Sundström, after the elder of his two sons moved to southern Sweden in 2000. MEET ME IN MALMÖ (originally planned as a film script) was published in hardback in 2010. All four Malmö Mysteries are now available as ebooks – the latest being MIDNIGHT IN MALMÖ. The first three (‘Meet me in Malmö’, ‘Murder in Malmö’ and ‘Missing in Malmö’) are being published as paperbacks this year through McNidder & Grace Crime. He has also brought out an historical crime ebook called SWEET SMELL OF MURDER, which is set in the Georgian England of the 1750s. Torquil still makes regular trips to Malmö and Skåne to visit his Swedish family and friends. And he is working on further Anita Sundström stories. Find out more  here

 Visit Torquil MacLeod’s Amazon author page here

91pMBisRi8L                 51KhOVRibVL__SX310_BO1,204,203,200_            19180454 91YRRnXnFdL

 

A Weekend Round Up- Hewitt, Sylvester, Williams, Walsh and Hunt- the good, the bad and the ugly…

As I am so woefully behind with my reviews, and am nervously aware of further reviewing commitments this month, I am going to unashamedly nick a fellow blogger’s idea for digested reads. Here then, for your reading pleasure, and in the curtailed style of internet reading, are five reads from recent weeks- the good and the bad…

dyJASON HEWITT- THE DYNAMITE ROOM: July 1940. Eleven-year-old Lydia walks through a village in rural Suffolk on a baking hot day. She is wearing a gas mask. The shops and houses are empty, windows boarded up and sandbags green with mildew, the village seemingly deserted. Leaving it behind, she strikes off down a country lane through the salt marshes to a large Edwardian house – the house she grew up in. Lydia finds it empty too, the windows covered in black-out blinds. Her family is gone. Late that night he comes, a soldier, gun in hand and heralding a full-blown German invasion. There are, he explains to her, certain rules she must now abide by. He won’t hurt Lydia, but she cannot leave the house. Is he telling the truth? What is he looking for? Why is he so familiar? And how does he already know Lydia’s name? 

Not strictly, strictly, a crime book I know, but contains more than enough thought-provoking psychological suspense to keep any reader satisfied. With the claustrophobic setting of two completely contrasting characters confined within a contained space for the majority of the book, Hewitt completely immerses us in the issues of morality and loyalty that come into play in times of conflict. By using the setting of Lydia’s home, but carefully interweaving details of the background of both characters, there is much mileage to be had in manipulating and changing the reader’s empathy as piece by piece certain details are revealed- particularly in the case of Heiden’s former experiences. In the characterisation of both, Hewitt more than demonstrates his authorial control, and the pace of this meditative and at times lyrically written plot, carries the reader along effortlessly. With his background in acting, there is a very visual quality to his description, and Lydia’s home in particular is tangible and real, taking on a character of its own. I have one small grievance. I wish that the book had been concluded at the end of the penultimate chapter which was mighty powerful and caused more than a sharp inhalation of breath, as I do have a personal aversion to ‘wrap-up’ final chapters. However, the prose style of the book, which I found very reminiscent of the Irish literary style ( a la Toibin, Trevor etc), the depth of research, and beautifully drawn characters, were completely satisfying. Excellent.

 

visitors1SIMON SYLVESTER- THE VISITORS: The island has always seemed such a safe place, such a friendly community. Now the possibility of a killer on Bancree is dangerously close to home.
Nobody moves to the remote Scottish island of Bancree, and few leave – but leaving is exactly what seventeen-year-old Flora intends to do. So when a mysterious man and his daughter move into isolated Dog Cottage, Flo is curious. What could have brought these strangers to the island? The man is seductively handsome but radiates menace; and there’s something about his daughter Ailsa that Flo can’t help but feel drawn towards. People aren’t only arriving on Bancree – they are disappearing too. Reports of missing islanders fill the press and unnerve the community. When a body washes ashore, suspicion turns to the strange newcomers on Dog Rock. Convinced of their innocence, Flo is fiercely determined to protect her friend Ailsa. Could the answer to the disappearances, and to the pull of her own heart, lie out there, beyond the waves? 

There’s something about crime fiction set in small town communities that is endlessly compelling, and if these communities are set on remote Scottish islands, so much the better! Again, another crime book that is much more allayed to the style of contemporary fiction, The Visitors  is an intriguing tale, steeped in myth, murder and a nifty reworking of the familiar locked room mystery, where there are only a finite group of suspects, but where the guilty party is well-concealed. This book is atmospheric, mysterious, and is imbued with a beautiful dream-like quality, incorporating as it does mythical tales from the tradition of oral storytelling. By fusing so completely the superstitions of the past, with an essentially modern murder mystery focussed around  two young female protagonists, Sylvester has really brought something quite different to the genre. Being fascinated personally by the Icelandic sagas and Norse myth, I thoroughly enjoyed the tales of the Shennachie but also how this was counterbalanced throughout by attention to the very particular problems of modern island existence in the contemporary age. Although I found the actual murder mystery a less satisfying aspect of the book, this was of little consequence when taking the character, atmosphere and the rendering of the mythical tales into account. Enjoyed and recommend.

 

tuesS. WILLIAMS- TUESDAY FALLING: You’ve never met anyone like Tuesday. She has suffered extreme cruelty at the hands of men, and so has taken it upon herself to seek vengeance. She wants to protect and help others like her, to ease their suffering. A force to be reckoned with, she lives beneath the streets of London in the hidden network of forgotten tunnels that honeycomb the city – and this is her preferred hunting ground. When Tuesday is connected to a series of brutal attacks on gang members, DI Loss takes on the investigation. A burned-out detective still suffering the devastating effects of the unsolved murder of his daughter three years earlier, the case starts to hit close to home. Because soon Loss will discover that Tuesday could hold the key to uncovering the truth about what happened to his daughter…

Fresh, unique and exciting would be just three of the words I would use to describe this wholly original debut crime thriller. Set underground, over-ground (not Womble-ing free) in London, this  thriller combines the technological savvy age and cut and thrust of the teeming life of the metropolis, whilst bringing to the reader’s attention the historical underbelly of this great city. I adored the delicious and surprising detail of the life below the city streets, that Peter Ackroyd, would be envious of, and the interesting and archaic weapons that Tuesday uses to accomplish her mission. The characterisation was also absolutely top-notch with Tuesday revealing herself as a glorious amalgamation of Lisbeth Salander and Katniss Everdene, with her outward appearance of strength undercut by a heart-rending sense of frailty. Likewise, D.I. Loss and his female police partner, D. S. Stone made for a terrific partnership with his damaged and world weary persona, working in absolute balance with her streetwise nouse and natural humour. The story was clever, full of tricks and totally engrossing. Loved it. Loved it. Loved it.

imagesQRS0CTBCM. O. WALSH- MY SUNSHINE AWAY: Welcome to Woodland Hills, Louisiana: a place of lush, sweltering summers, neighbourhood cookouts in every backyard and vats of chilled beer under the crepe myrtles. One day Lindy Simpson cycles home from school and straight into a trap: someone is lying in wait for her, a wire strung between lampposts blocking the path. She is raped just yards from her front door. No one sees a thing and the perpetrator is not caught. Her fourteen year old neighbour has cherished a crush on Lindy, the ultimate girl next door, since they were kids. After her assault he becomes determined to solve the crime, investigating each suspect in the neighbourhood. But before this long, hot summer is out, it will become clear that the friendly community of Woodland Hills has much to hide. Behind every white picket fence in suburbia lies a tangled web of darkness. In his zeal to solve the mystery, the teenage detective stumbles across a sinister world he doesn’t recognise, drawing ever closer to a terrifying denouement…

On paper, I should have absolutely loved this, as it appeared to tick the boxes of what I most enjoy reading, but it didn’t. This is always one of those tricky ones to review, as  I can appreciate what the author was aiming for, relocating the traditional rural backwoods setting of the Southern Gothic into a suburban setting, but it really didn’t gel for me. On the positive side, I liked the sultry and suffocating atmosphere of Louisiana, and being a native of the state, Walsh made a strong impact with the rendition of place. I was intrigued at the start by the premise of the crime, the infatuation of Lindy’s neighbour, and his angst-ridden musings as to the identity of the guilty party, both as child and adult,  but I soon got tired by the endless circles the plot seemed to go in as it slowly staggered to its conclusion. I just found it all a bit tedious and I was more than a little relieved to get to the end. Think I will remain loyal to my beloved Southern Gothic in its traditional setting. Disappointing.

catherine-hunt-someone-out-thereCATHERINE HUNT- SOMEONE OUT THERE: Laura Maxwell appears to have it all – perfect career, perfect husband, perfect life. But how well do you really know the people around you? All it takes is one tiny crack to shatter the whole façade. A series of accidents causes Laura to believe that someone out there is deliberately targeting her, trying to harm her. The fear starts to pervade every part of her life, affecting her work and her marriage. Increasingly, she feels that no one believes her story, and she must face down her attacker alone…

Another addition to the completely saturated domestic noir market and let’s roll it out again- “perfect for fans of Girl On The Train and Gone Girl”. Aaargh *runs away screaming*.  As a bookseller and a reader I am so over this genre, but in the spirit of being a dedicated reviewer I gave this one a look. Laura was your typical middle class – look at my lovely life- type of woman, destined for a fall (actually there’s a nasty episode with a horse that demonstrates this), and this book was so reminiscent of Sabine Durrant’s  Under Your Skin that my antenna of doom were twitching quite early.  I had my first whiff of a clue on page 9. Had it completely sussed by page 50. And was treading water from there on in. Okay- I skipped to the end. I was correct in my assumptions. Oh well. Lots and lots of people love this book as is testified by the Amazon reviews. Just not me. Sorry.

 

 

Bloody Scotland Blog Tour- An Interview With Simon Sylvester- The Visitors

 

cgmnwk2xaaal1yzAs the excitement builds in advance of this year’s Bloody Scotland crime writing festival, I am delighted to welcome Simon Sylvester, author of The Visitors, to answer some probing questions on his life as a writer…

imgID11657432_1422209231_crop_550x380To whet the reader’s appetite, tell us more about The Visitors…
The Visitors is set on a remote Scottish island called Bancree, and narrated by a girl called Flora Cannan. At 17, Flo feels trapped on the island, and is counting down the days before she can leave. Through her we learn about a string of mysterious disappearances, and also about the myth of the selkie, which Flo studies for a school project. The islanders become increasingly fearful as more people disappear, and then a curious couple move to Bancree, becoming Flora’s only friends. The book blends landscape, crime, and folklore. Ultimately, The Visitors is a murder mystery about love.

visitors1And your route to publication…
I wrote the first draft of the book during a year of teacher-training, part-time college work and part-time childcare, working mostly late at night. My amazing agent Sue sent it to Quercus Books, and we spent another six months working through some edits. I’ve been very lucky that the book has been quite well received, and went on to win a couple of prizes, for which I’m extremely grateful. It’s a strange thing to think of other people reading it. I know you’re not supposed to read reviews, but I can’t help myself. I spent so long bound up in the story and the characters that I’m still thrown by other people reading it.

How did you come to the decision to focus your book on two teenage female protagonists, and was it difficult to achieve the level of authenticity to their narrative voice that you have?
I don’t believe that women, or teenagers, are another sort of species, or speak a different language. Anger and love, frustration and joy, sadness and curiosity – these are true to all of us, and make a core of human experience. It’s my job to bring those things to my characters. Empathy is one of a writer’s most important weapons, I think, giving the ability to temporarily extend their own senses into a charcter, and their situation, and their world, and explore how that feels. I never considered myself a ventriloquist in writing like a teenage girl. If anything, it helped me go an adventure of my own.

What is it about small isolated communities that make them such fertile ground for crime fiction in particular?
Secrets! We all have them. Secrets are the key to all crime fiction. They work really well in cities, where victims and criminals are hidden in a crowd, and the mystery is to pick one culprit from many suspects, but it’s perhaps more unsettling when there are fewer players, and they’re forced together face to face. That can make the story immediate, urgent, personal. Familiarity makes us feel safe, after all, and undermining that sense of safety with fear and doubt is gold for any writer. It creates a grisly little melting pot of distrust, fear, hope and misdirection. Focusing on smaller communities also allows for the landscape itself to become involved, and I like writing about landscape. I spent a windswept week camping on Coll this summer, and found myself imagining a murder there. When the ferry comes once a day and fewer than 200 people live on the island, everyone is a suspect – the same friends and neighbours island communities depend upon. My four-year-old daughter also insisted she saw kelpies in the lochans. Maybe that’s one for another novel!

I loved the use of myth and the harking back to the age-old tradition of oral storytelling you employ in the book. Was there much research involved to capture the voice of the Shennachie?
The Visitors marked something of a crossroads for me. After years of writing experimental fiction, I pretty much stumbled into the understanding that actually, I wanted to write stories, real stories, stories that took me on journeys. I started going to more open mic nights and spoken word events, and enjoying what I heard. One of the best was called Dreamfired. Once a month, Dreamfired brought international storytellers to a hall in rural Cumbria, where they shared myths, or folk tales, or real life tales. I learned a lot from them about storyteling as both a tradition and a performance. When it came to writing The Visitors, I knew Izzy would tell self-contained stories, and he’d tell them in a quite theatrical way. I invented the stories he tells, though! The classic traditional selkie tale makes it into the book, but the others are mine; I did a lot of research, but couldn’t find selkie stories that did quite what I needed.

Is there an immediate connection to you having an idea about a book and getting it down on paper/screen, or do you have an extended period of cogitation. What is your normal writing routine? And what’s in the pipeline?
Some ideas are immediate, and some need to brew, but they all evolve when I start to write. The Visitors popped into my head almost fully-formed, but the more I wrote, the more it cartwheeled away from me. Flora and Ailsa set off on paths of their own choosing, and it began to feel as though I was along for the ride. My current work is a novel called The Hollows. I spent all of last year slogging away on it, grafting out shitty sentences and cutting them again, and then discovered on Christmas Eve, after a year of this grind, that I was writing the exact same plot and setting of another book. I took a deep breath, drank a strong beer, and deleted it all. I spent January with a notebook and a pen, remembering why I wanted to tell the story in the first place. Then I wrote it in in two days a week over the next four months – 105,000 words in about 35 working days, which feels insane. I’ll be finishing the last tweaks this week, and then my wife will read it, and then I’ll send it to my agent and keep my fingers firmly crossed. The Hollows is another mystery/thriller. It’s about memories and mud, and it’s the most fun I’ve had while writing a novel. Part of that is changing my work routine. I used to work late into the night and feel exhausted all the time, but now I go to bed early and write before I go to work in the morning. On a good morning, I can write 500 words. On a bad morning, I barely have time to read what I wrote the day before; but either way, I keep in touch with my manuscript, so I’m coming to it fresh when I get a full day to write. That’s made it easier to carry the flow of the story.

Sticking your head above the parapet, do you have any advice for the budding writer?
I’m a little wary of handing out advice, because ultimately all I have to offer is what works for me, and I suspect that everyone needs to find their own way of muddling through. So, with that said, my humble suggestions are to take public transport as much as possible, so you can eavesdrop in trains and bustops and cafes. Turn off the internet when you’re working and get rid of your smart phone – it’s a vampire for your senses. Go walking or swimming. Read outside your comfort zone. Go to workshops and spoken word nights, because writing needs community. Read your work aloud, all the time. Be kind. Be brave.

In the spirit of the British summer- if it ever arrives- you can invite a bunch of authors (alive or dead) round for a half-cooked barbecue sausage and a warm beer. Who would you choose? 

Never meet your heroes, right? There are living authors I’d like to meet, like Sarah Waters and Sarah Hall and Neil Gaiman and Arjun Basu and J. Robert Lennon, and dead authors I’d like to have met, like Hunter S. Thompson and Roberto Bolano, but most of all, I would have very much liked a pint of beer with Terry Pratchett. His books carried me through some difficult times, and he had a warmth and a humour and an anger that I’m going to miss…

 

cgmnwk2xaaal1yzSimon will be appearing at Bloody Scotland on Sunday September 13th: follow the link here

“We ship out to sea with two highly original voices in crime fiction. Former journalist turned crime writer Mark Douglas-Home’s novels follow oceanographer or ‘sea detective’ Cal McGill who has returned for a third instalment in The Malice of Waves. Not The Booker Prize winner Simon Sylvester’s thoughtful novel The Visitors sees disappearances happen on a storm-tossed Scottish island, and draws on myths of selkies and sea creatures.”

And don’t forget to keep up with the blog tour to discover more about the authors taking part in Bloody Scotland…

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July 2015 Round-Up and Raven’s Book of the Month

_DSC0185 (Common Raven)Well, if I do say so myself, July* has been a very productive month for reading and reviewing. I still have a couple of reviews outstanding from the plethora of great releases in the last month, but have managed to make a little dent in the teetering to-be read pile. Aided by a week’s holiday from work, there’s been a good mix of books read this month and a couple of blog tours too- one for fellow blogger Sarah Ward and her debut thriller In Bitter Chill and a blogathon par excellence for  Neil White organised by the brilliant Liz Loves Books whose site is definitely worth a visit. Looks like August will be another busy one, but I will endeavour to get to some of my to-be-read pile too, as there are some as yet undiscovered gems lurking there I’m sure. Have a good month everybody!

Books Read and Reviewed:

Kate Griffin- Kitty Peck and the Child of Ill Fortune (www.crimefictionlover.com)

Alexandra Sokoloff- Huntress Moon (FBI Thrillers Book 1)

Sarah Ward- In Bitter Chill

Michael Robotham- Life Or Death

Mark Edwards- Follow You Home

Ruth Ware- In A Dark Dark Wood

Ed McBain- So Nude, So Dead

Chris Carter- I Am Death (www.crimefictionlover.com)

I also managed to read Sarah Hilary’s Someone Else’s Skin (winner of the Theakston’s Crime Fiction Prize) and Kate London’s debut thriller- Post Mortem. If you like London-based police procedurals with strong female protagonists, both of these will probably hit the spot. Both had very assured plotting, and Hilary has already published a second book featuring her detective Marnie Rome, who has quickly established quite a following in the crime fiction reading community. With Kate London’s background in policing, her book had a brilliant authenticity in terms of procedure, and the psychological impact of the job on her police protagonists, which proved thought-provoking throughout. A highly promising debut. Both are recommended by the Raven…

Raven’s Book of the Month

25484031Despite the utter joy of getting my talons on a re-discovered Ed McBain classic with So Nude, So Dead, there is little hesitation in picking Michael Robotham’s Life Or Death as my favourite read this month. Showing his flexibility as a writer, as this book is so different in tone, character, and setting to his previous books (which I’ve also been rather partial to), this book was really something special. Sharing more in common with some of the best written contemporary American fiction, this book was by turns, emotive and violent, but never losing sight of the writer’s aim in providing a tension-fuelled thriller, that proved exceptionally hard to put down. Excellent.

*I know there was mention of an incredibly special book that I wanted to share with you this month. I will post a review soon, as it’s just been published in the UK, and I need to hit the thesaurus for some more superlatives…

 

Ed McBain- So Nude, So Dead

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He’d been a promising piano prodigy, once. Now he was just an addict, scraping to get by, letting his hunger for drugs consume him. But a man’s life can always get worse – as Ray Stone discovers when he wakes up beside a beautiful nightclub singer, Eileen Chalmers, only to find her dead… and 16 ounces of pure heroin missing. On the run from the law, desperate to prove his innocence and find a killer, Ray also faces another foe, merciless and unforgiving: his growing craving for a fix…

So Nude, So Dead was the first crime novel by the writer most famously known as Ed McBain, and was originally published in 1952 as The Evil Sleep! (under the name of Evan Hunter), and again in 1956 as So Nude, So Dead under the pen name of Richard Marsten. Thanks to those wonderful people at Hard Case Crime, the book* has been re-published over 50 years later, to mark the tenth anniversary of McBain’s passing.

As a lifelong fan of McBain, the re-emergence of a ‘lost’ book by him has been an absolute treat, and if, like me, you love your American crime with an enhanced sense of ‘pulp’ this will be as much of a treat for you. With his central protagonist, the mercurial dope fiend Ray Stone, on the hunt for those that would frame him for murder and larceny, supported by a cast of increasingly unlikeable and grasping characters, this is vintage McBain. As Stone traverses the seedy underbelly of New York nightclubs avoiding the police and the bad guys, McBain steadily sets up each possible culprit, male and female, for Stone to interrogate using a number of guises, but all underpinned by Stone’s increasing tension caused by his need for one more fix to see him through his quest. His desperation for dope is succinctly and colourfully portrayed, and we get a real sense of how such a promising individual has found his life gone to the dogs by his addiction, and the effects of his addiction on those closest to him. We feel every moment of confusion, every wrenching stomach pain, and cold sweat, as he tries to balance his body’s cry for a fix with his search for a killer. McBain also trains a cool eye on the depths of deviousness Stone has employed to fund this addiction, which makes for some harsh reading, and carefully manipulates our feelings towards Stone even as his reliance on his habit waxes and wanes as the book progresses. McBain’s supporting cast is terrific too, as he builds up a picture of Eileen Chalmers’ life as a nightclub singer, and the host of unsavoury connections she has made behind the surface glitz and glamour of her chosen profession. As Stone encounters each exploitative impressario, slimy musician or jealous female acquaintance of Chalmers’ you could put your money on any of them stitching him up….

Shooting straight from the hip the dialogue is razor sharp and as Chalmers’ teasingly refers to her and Stone’s repartee on their first encounter, “Sparkling dialogue. Refuges from a Grade-B stinkeroo”. The dialogue is spare, frank and uncompromising, and delivered in a style that by which what is unsaid lingers in the air like plumes of exhaled tobacco smoke. See he’s got me at it now. As I’ve said before, it was this style of book that got me hooked on crime fiction, with the deceit and failings of some of the most despicable members of society unflinchingly portrayed through the pared down rhythmic simplicity of manner and speech. It’s mesmerising, darkly witty and brutally truthful, and that is why I have always adored Ed McBain. So Nude, So Dead only compounds my adoration, and it was a joy to discover anew a fledgling work by this most missed of crime authors.

(With thanks to Cara at Titan Books for the ARC)

*This edition also contains a rare McBain short story Die Hard featuring private eye Matt Cordell from The Gutter and the Grave).

Bloody Scotland Crime Book of the Year 2015- Shortlist

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Bloody Scotland International Crime Writing Festival has announced the shortlist for the annual Bloody Scotland Crime Book of the Year Award.

The award recognises excellence in Scottish crime writing. Previous winners are 2014- Peter May – Entry Island , 2013- Malcolm Mackay-   How A Gunman Says Goodbye and 2012- Charles Cumming- A Foreign Country.

The nominees are:

Lin Anderson- Paths of the Dead

Matt Bendoris- DM For Murder

Chris Brookmyre- Dead Girl Walking

Ann Cleeves- Thin Air

Craig Russell- The Ghosts of Altona

Louise Welsh- Death Is A Welcome Guest

The winner will be announced at the Bloody Scotland International Crime Writing Festival (11-13 September).

ck51i0hwcaaqvlkDom Hastings, Director of Bloody Scotland said ‘The Bloody Scotland Crime Book of the Year is increasingly prestigious, and this year’s shortlist, replete with a number of very successful authors, is testament to the strength, variety and diversity of crime writing in Scotland. Reading these books, you can travel from a misty midsummer night in Shetland to a high-security prison in the middle of an outbreak; experience the mysteries of a Druidic stone circle and the cut-throat anonymities of cyberspace, go on tour with a famous rock band or track down a long-lost killer. It’s a bit of a spooky list this year, with several of the novels flirting with the supernatural; also, interestingly, four of the titles are anchored by long-standing protagonists, proving that innovation and excellence still flourish in on-going series fiction. All in all, it’s a phenomenally strong showing, demonstrating that crime fiction in Scotland is still in rude, bloody health.’

For further information visit:

www.bloodyscotland.com

Ruth Ware- In A Dark Dark Wood

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If the murderous goings on at a stag do in Peter James` Dead Simple chilled you to the bone, Ruth Ware sets out to even the score in In A Dark Dark Wood,  with a hen weekend that is full of  deliciously disturbing surprises. With my normal, cynical air, I feared that my general apathy with British psychological thrillers would continue as I embarked on this one. Idly sitting down to read a few pages to test the water, I was hooked. Completely. And breaking only for some quick refreshment, I read this in pretty much one sitting…

Crime writer Leonora (Nora) Shaw leads a fairly solitary existence in London, mostly happy to keep herself to herself, with sporadic entertainment provided by her larger than life best friend Nina. Out of the blue, she and Nina receive an invitation to a hen weekend in the wilds of Northumbria, from a mystery woman called Flo, purporting to be a close friend of the bride, Clare Cavendish What is strange for Nora is that she and Claire broke all contact ten years ago, for reasons as yet unrevealed, so why the invite? Egged on by Nina, Nora accepts the invitation and quelle surprise, this is where the trouble really begins…

As far as any expansion on the plot goes, I am keeping it zipped, as it is tricky to avoid spoilers, and spoil your participation as a reader, trying to untangle and second-guess the nature of the relationships at play. With the plot shifting between the events of the weekend itself , and the aftermath with Nora finding herself at the centre of a police investigation, the pacing of this book is exemplary. With the Christie-esque air of a pseudo country-house mystery, there is palpable feel of tension and claustrophobia pervading the whole book. With our six relative strangers, trapped in some horrible contemporary glass monstrosity in the woods in the beginning of winter, the location works beautifully to ratchet up the feeling of peril. The house becomes almost another character in the book, made even more sinister by the encroaching tendrils of the dark, dark woods. Likewise, the tension that Nora and Nina feel in this setting, amplifies the feeling of dread that both experience over the course of the weekend, and to be honest I would have turned tail fairly sharpish.  Woods + goldfish bowl of a house + remote location = whole heap of trouble…

Another real strength of the book is the characterisation, and the balance of Nora’s reticent and introverted nature, making her a highly empathetic character, is superbly counterbalanced by the boisterous, loud and kick ass attitude of Nina. Hence, the juxtaposition of two such contrary characters works very well, particularly when they find themselves even more closely aligned in their mockery and suspicion of their fellow ‘hen’ guests- Clare, the icy bride-to-be, Flo, the mental chief bridesmaid, Tom, camp best friend, and Melanie, the over emotional new mum. It’s a real melting pot of weirdness, and as events from the past come to light, be prepared for some very odd and irrational behaviour indeed. Oh. And a murder…

On the whole, I enjoyed this debut very much. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the ending, but to be honest, with the strength of how it had built up to this point, it wasn’t really a major problem. Heaps more enjoyable than Girl On A Train (or any other book at the moment with girl in the title), and in true reviewer style, I’ve little hesitation in announcing this a total page-turner. Oh, and take a peep underneath the dust jacket. A thing of beauty lurks beneath…

(With thanks to Random House for the ARC)

Mark Edwards- Follow You Home

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I would be the first person to put my hands up and say that I have had rather a patchy reading relationship with Mark Edwards’ previous crime thrillers, but very pleased to report that, although not without fault, I really quite enjoyed Follow You Home, a dark, psychologically suspenseful read….

Based on the interesting premise, and as it turns out in common with the author, a young couple, Daniel and Laura, find themselves set adrift on their European tour, with a young Eastern European woman, Alina, in the arse-end of Romania, having had their passports and tickets stolen on a train. Unlike, Edwards own experience, and against all common sense advice of every horror film going, they take a misguided trip into the woods, but what they encounter there stays concealed for a good while, as the story flips back to their return to what should be the normality of their lives in London. It quickly becomes evident that this foray into the backwoods of Eastern Europe has wreaked havoc on their relationship, their mental and emotional balance, and that they are both in extreme danger from what they have witnessed, as certain dangerous chickens come home to roost. Well. Not literally, but you get my drift.

I found this to be a very well-plotted, if slightly too long, psychological thriller. I enjoyed the little teasing vignettes of their sinister Romanian escapade that Edwards inserts intermittently throughout the book, and despite an assortment of misguided guesses on my part, the truth of what they had witnessed is a whole heap darker and disturbing that even the most twisted mind could conjure. It’s dark. Very dark indeed. I thought the characterisation and rendition of the European location was well realised, and that even the most talented of travel guide writers, could not have made this locale feel any less sinister. I did feel a little that so much creative energy had been used on this clever and well weighted plot that the characterisation suffered a little as a result. I found it hard to really relate to Daniel or Laura, as I didn’t find them all that likeable to begin with, but I liked Alina very much, and through her horrific experiences could not help but feel a huge sense of sympathy for her character. She was incredibly well-drawn with a terrific balance of gritty determination, yet emotional fragility, and was a real beacon of interest throughout this torrid tale. Likewise, the comely Camelia who is tasked by the baddies to break down Daniel’s defences, is a welcome addition to the plot, and if you ever want to confess to some minor infraction like nicking a pencil from Argos, she would probably welcome this revelation. You’ll understand when you read the book..

Having already accrued a plethora of glowing reviews on the internet, Follow You Home, ticks all the boxes for an engaging and quite chilling summer read. The plot is well executed, and Edwards controls the dramatic tension fairly evenly throughout, although it could have been trimmed slightly which would have tightened up some of the more meandering London interludes. With a couple of stand-out characters, and a highly original and interesting premise for a thriller, this was overall a satisfying read. Good.

(With thanks to Amazon Publishing for the ARC)

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